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Nasiruddin Hojja in retrospect

Literature 2022-12-01, 11:15am


Mullah Nasruddin Hojja

Jehangir Hussain

Nasiruddin Hojja or Mullah Nasiruddin Hooja (1208-1285) was a character in the folklore of Central Asia to Arabia and a hero of humorous short stories and satirical anecdotes.

There are statements about his existence in real life and even archaeological evidence in specific places, for example, a tombstone in the city of Aksehir, Turkey.

He  appears in thousands of stories, sometimes witty, sometimes wise, but often, too as a fool or the butt of a joke.

Jehangir Hussain

A Nasiruddin story usually has a subtle humour and a pedagogic nature.

The International Nasiruddin Hodja festival is celebrated between July 5 and 10 every year in Akşehir.

In 2020, an application to include "Telling tradition of Nasreddin Khoja" in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list was jointly submitted by the governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan.

Claims about his origin are made by many ethnic groups. Many sources give the birthplace of Nasiruddin as Hortu villagein Sivrihisar, Eskisehir Province in present day Turkey, in the 13th century, after which he settled in Aksehir, and later in Konya under the Seljuk rule, where he died in 1275 or 1286. It is claimed that the tomb of Nasiruddin is in Aksehir, and the International Nasiruddin Festival is held annually in Aksehir, July 5-10.

There are also opposing views that Nasreddin's origin lies in Central Asia.

The Arabic version of the character, known as "juha", is the oldest attested version of the character and the most divergent, being mentioned in Al-Jahiz’s  book "Saying on Mules" according Al-Dhahi, his full name was "Abu al-Ghusn Dujayn al-Fizari", he lived under the Umayyads in Kufa, in Sunni tradition.

The oldest manuscript of Nasreddin dates to 1571.

Today, Nasreddin stories are told across the world and have been translated into many languages. Some regions independently developed a character similar to Nasirueddin, and the stories have become part of a larger whole. In many regions, Nasiruddin is a major part of the culture, and is quoted or alluded to frequently in daily life.

Since there are thousands of different Nasiruddin stories, one can be found to fit almost any occasion.

Nasreddin often appears as a whimsical character of a large Turkish, Persian, Adyghe, Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Greek, Gujrati, Hindi, Juedeo-Spanish, Kurdish , Romanian, Serbian,  Russian, Ubykh, and Urdu folk tradition of vignettes.

1996–1997 was declared International Nasreddin Year by UNESCO.

Some people say that, whilst uttering what seem  madness, he was, in reality, divinely inspired, and that it was not madness but wisdom that he uttered.

Turks, Afghans, Iraniabs and Uzbeks claim Nasiruddin as their own.

His name is spelt in a wide variety of ways: Nasrudeen, Nasrudin, Nasruddin, Nasriddin, Nasr ud-Din, Nasredin, Nasiruddin, Naseeruddin, Nasr Eddin, Nastradhin, Nasreddine, Nastratin, Nusrettin, Nasrettin, Nostradin, Nastradin.

It is sometimes preceded or followed by a title or honorific used in the corresponding cultures: "Hoxha", "Khwaje", "Koja", “Hodja”, "Hoja", "Hojja", "Hodscha", "Hodža", "Hoca", "Hocca","Hooka", "Hogea", “Mulla", "Mula", "Molla", “Efendi”, "Afandi", "Ependi’’, “Hajji”.

.In several cultures he is named by the title alone.

In Arabic-speaking countries this character is known as "Juha", "Djoha", "Djuha", "Dschuha", "Chotzas", "Goha". Juha was originally a separate folk character found in Arabic literature as early as the 9th century, and was widely popular by the 11th century.

Lore of the two characters became amalgamated in the 19th century when collections were translated from Arabic into Turkish and Persian.

The Arabic name "Juha" is the reverse of the Turkish word "Hoja" (spelled in Turkish as Hoca), due to his well known story of riding the donkey in reverse position. Arabs used the word to refer the Turkish scholars and reversed the letters in reference to the famous story of Nasiruddin.

In Sicily and Southern Italy he is known as "Giufa", derived from the Arabic character Juha.

In the Swahili and Indonesian culture, many of his stories are told under the name of "Abunuwasi" or "Abunawas", though this confuses Nasiruddin with an entirely different man – the poet Abu Nuwas, known for homoerotic verse.

In China, where stories of him are well known, he is known by the various transliteration from his Uyghur name, Āfántí and Āfāngtí.

The Uyghurs believe that he was from Xinjiang, while the Uzbeks believe he was from Bukhara.

Shanghai Animation Film Studio produced a 13-episode Nasreddin related animation called 'The Story of Afanti' in 1979, which became one of the most influential animations in China's history.

The musical Nasirdin Apandim features the legend of Nasreddin effendi ("sir, lord"), largely sourced from Uyghur folklore.

In Central Asia, he is commonly known as "Afandi". The Central Asian peoples also claim his local origin, as do Uyghurs.

Afandi or Afanti originates from Turkish "Efendi" and this is a title still used to show respect in Turkey. The combination "Hoja Efendi" is used in Turkey very often for the Muslim scholars in modern times as well. The word "Efendi" is ultimately derived from Greek "Authentes" (αὐθέντης) into Turkish. "Nasreddin Hoja Efendi" was shortened as "Efendi" in time. Subsequently "Efendi" happened to be the proper name as "Affandi" in Central Asia for Nasreddin Hoja.

The Nasreddin stories are known throughout the Middle East and have touched cultures around the world. Superficially, most of the Nasreddin stories may be told as jokes or humorous anecdotes. They are told in the teahouses and caravanserais of Asia and in homes and on the radio. But it is inherent in a Nasreddin story that it may be understood at many levels. There is the joke, followed by a moral and usually the little extra which brings the consciousness of the potential mystic a little further on the way to realization.

Once Nasiruddin was was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got on the pulpit, he asked, Do you know what I am going to say? The audience replied "no", so he announced, I have no desire to speak to people who don't even know what I will be talking about! and left.

The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked the same question, the people replied yes. So Nasreddin said, Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won't waste any more of your time! and left.

Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – Do you know what I am going to say? Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered "yes" while the other half replied "no". So Nasiruddin said Let the half who know what I am going to say tell it to the half who don't, and left.

A neighbour came to the gate of Hodja Nasreddin's yard. The Hodja went to meet him outside. “Would you mind, Hodja," the neighbour asked, "can you lend me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town."

Hodja didn't feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however. So, not to seem rude, he answered: “I'm sorry, but I've already lent him to somebody else."

All of a  sudden the donkey could be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.

 “But Hodja," the neighbour exclaimed. "I can hear it behind that wall!" 

"Whom do you believe," the Hodja replied indignantly, "the donkey or your Hodja?"

Some children saw Nasiruddin coming from the vineyard with two baskets full of grapes loaded on his donkey. They gathered around him and asked him to give them a taste. Nasreddin picked up a bunch of grapes and gave each child a grape. "You have so much, but you gave us so little," the children whined.

"There is no difference whether you have a basketful or a small piece. They all taste the same," Nasiruddin answered, and continued on his way.

Mullah had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: "Mullah, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?” Mullah stroked his beard and said: "The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here".

Uzbeks consider Nasiruddin an Uzbek who was born and lived in Bukhara, and stories about him are called latifa or afandi. There are at least two collections of Uzbek stories related to Nasiruddin Afandi:

Nasiruddin was the main character in a magazine, called simply Molla Nasiruddin, published in Azerbaijan and read across the world. The eight-page Azerbaijan Satirical periodical was published in Tiflis (from 1906 to 1917), Tabriz (in 1921) and Baku from 1922 to 1931) in the Azeri and occasionally Russian languages.

Founded by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, it depicted inequality, cultural assimilation and corruption and ridiculed the backward lifestyles and values of clergy and religious fanatics. The magazine was frequently banned but had a lasting influence on Azerbaijani and Iranian literature.

He is known as Mullah Nasiruddin in South Asian children's books. A TV serial on him was aired in India as Mulla Nasiruddin and was widely watched in India and Pakistan.

Some Nasiruddin tales also appear in collections of Aesop’s Fables. The Miller, his son and the donkey is one example. Others are "The Ass with a Burden of Salt" and "The Satyr and the Traveller."

In some Bulgarian folk tales that originated during the Ottoman period, the name appears as an antagonist to a local wise man, named Sly Peter.

In Sicily the same tales involve a man named Giufa.

In Sephardic  culture, spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, a character that appears in many folk tales is named Djoha.

In Romanian, the existing stories come from an 1853 verse compilation edited by Anton Pannu, a philologist and poet renowned for authoring the current Romanian anthem.

Nasiruddin is mostly known as a character from short tales; however, he has also been featured in longer mediums, such as novels and films.

In Russia, Nasiruddin is known mostly because of the Russian work ‘Troublemaker’ by Leonid Solovyov  in English translations: "The Beggar in the Harem: Impudent Adventures in Old Bukhara", 1956, and "The Tale of Hodja Nasreddin: Disturber of the Peace", 2009). The composer Shostakovich celebrated Nasiruddin, among other figures, in the second movement  "Humor" of his Symphony No. 13. The text, by Yevgeney Yevtushenko, portrays humor as a weapon against dictatorship and tyranny. Shostakovich's music shares many of the "foolish yet profound" qualities of Nasiruddin's sayings listed above.

The Graeco-Armenian mystic G I Gurudjieff often referred to "our own dear Mullah Nasr Eddin", also calling him an "incomparable teacher", particularly in his book Beelzebub’s Tales.

Sufi philosopher Idries Shah published several collections of Nasiruddin stories in English, and emphasized their teaching value.

In 1943, the Soviet film Nasreddin in Bukhara was directed by Hakov Protazanov based on Solovyov's book, followed in 1947 by a film called The Adventures of Nasreddin, directed by Nabi Ganiyev and also set in Uzbekistan.

In 1964, Richard Williams, a Canadian-British animator, began work on Nasrudin, an animated film based on the character. The film was produced with the help of Idries Shah, for whom Williams had illustrated books about the character; however, tensions between Williams' crew and the Shah family caused Williams to end his relationship with them, causing him to lose his right to use Nasiruddin as a character. The unfinished film was later reworked into The Thief and the Cobbler, which had a similarly troubled production history.